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How to create a college course schedule your future self won't regret

Quizlet HQ & Quizlet in Education ·
planning your course schedule.jpeg

Quizlet is proud to partner with real students and recent graduates to showcase authentic voices on our blog. This guest post is by Nicolette Kier, who just graduated from the University of Pittsburgh.

I’m pretty sure this happens to the majority of people their first semester of college, almost like a rite of passage. It goes like this:

You think to yourself, “I was up and at school (or in a virtual meeting) by roughly 8 a.m. every day. I can take a 9 a.m. lab.”

So you schedule that 9 a.m. lab. But for some reason, it’s much harder than you thought to make it to the building on time, let alone to be awake enough to feel confident working with chemicals.

Or maybe you’re a naturally early riser (I am impressed with and envious of this rare group) and you end up fighting to stay awake in an evening class.

Many professors count attendance towards your grade. If you do not show up to a certain number of classes, you risk failing the course. Other courses do not necessarily require attendance, but require you to take lecture notes and ask detailed questions. I’m thinking about math and science courses, with textbooks that are by no means easily digestible. And I’m thinking about professors who don’t use the textbook at all. Instead, they test based on what you do in class.

This is all to say that a poorly planned course schedule can make the difference between an A and a B—or between passing and failing.

But a great course schedule can change the direction of your entire semester—or your entire academic career.

So, second-semester freshmen and above, use this knowledge and your own personal experience to create a schedule that sets you up for success. Incoming freshmen: You have a chance to avoid the mistakes of your elders. Please take it.

Note: I know that some courses are only offered at one time. And they’re never all that convenient. But within this guide is a way to deal with this and still maintain the optimal course schedule.

Internal Factors: Self-awareness and realistic expectations are key.

self-awareness.pngI’m taking this kind of energy into 2021.
(Image by jarmoluk from Pixabay.)

I can respect the desire and drive to improve. At the same time, trying to make the leap from night owl to morning person may not be wise, especially when what is at stake is your grade in a class that literally costs thousands of dollars.

Cultivating self-awareness and setting realistic expectations for yourself will really increase your ability to learn.

How does one develop self-awareness? That’s a huge topic, one that’s worth delving into, but essentially:

  • Listen to your mind. Take the time to slow down and analyze your thoughts. Are they positive or negative thoughts? When do they arise? What can they tell you about yourself?
  • Listen to your senses. Slow down and notice how your body is feeling at different times of the day. When does it feel heavier, more tired? When do you strut down the sidewalk, and when do you just want to collapse on your bed?
  • Listen to your feelings. How does it feel to be in a certain class at a certain time?

Many people think “setting realistic expectations” is about the same as being unambitious, or lazy. But it’s not. It’s about creating reasonable goals, and doing your best to attain them. Setting expectations like this allows you to meet your edge, but not overextend your reach.

So, how do you do this? Again, it’s a big subject, and this article should help.

Now let’s talk about how to use self-awareness and realistic expectations while setting up your course schedule.

Timing is key. But focusing on your internal clock will take you much farther than any wall clock.

brain-concentration.jpegYour body and your mind work together. Listen to them both.
(Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay.)

Finishing up your classes by noon every day sounds like a dream to a lot of people. This is because they actually are dreaming for most of the morning, and won’t wake up until 10 or 11 a.m.

But trying to force your body to live by external ideas about time, like the notion that rising early is always a good thing, will probably backfire.

Listen to how your body feels throughout the day. When are you sitting upright in your chair, and when are you slumping further down in your seat, counting the minutes until you can go home and take a nap?

When do you naturally wake up and fall asleep? When do you get really hungry, or antsy?

Once you’ve really taken stock of how your body feels throughout the day, consider your mind.

What time of day do you naturally feel more bored, restless, or ready to head home?

Personally, I got nervous when I had to rush to catch a bus, which happened every single morning. I also didn’t like mornings all that much. So I didn’t schedule any classes before 11 a.m. My very last semester, I trusted myself to take a 10 a.m. class. This was a big deal for me, so anyone who shows up to their 8 a.m. class in full dress and makeup should just let me have this relatively small win.

I also got antsy if I sat for more than three hours at a time. So I tried to schedule in an hour or so for a break when I could. I would also sit down and have a proper meal during this break.

I could make it through a three-hour course. It was more difficult at night, and much more difficult in winter, when the sun set so early, but I could do it. I took advantage of this knowledge, and felt confident signing up for an evening class every semester.

I definitely ran out of steam by noon on Friday, so I tried hard to avoid Friday afternoon classes. I ended up with a lot of Monday/Wednesday and Tuesday/Thursday classes.

What classroom environment is best for you?

lecture-hall.jpegHa, no thank you.
(Image by Wokandapix from Pixabay.)

It’s no secret that many students harbor an aversion to the lecture hall. But sometimes, it can’t be avoided. In those scenarios, I highly recommend sitting somewhere you’ll be able to see and focus.

Some people are okay with it, and are okay being around a bunch of people in general (before COVID, obviously.) However, I was not. And I didn’t like feeling trapped in a small room with a lot of people.

So I tried to find courses in buildings that were spacious. I went to the University of Pittsburgh, whose Cathedral of Learning has notoriously small classrooms. I avoided them as much as possible.

When it comes to the number of people in a course, you’ll typically find that as you advance in your major, the classes just naturally are smaller. This is because they’re more specialized, and not as many people need them to graduate. In your general education courses, the number of students allowed in a class varies, so you have to actively look for smaller class sizes.

On a large campus, you may also find that you need to consider logistics. For example, you have a class in one building, and there’s another class you want or need to take halfway across campus from the class before it, and you’d only have like 10 minutes to get there. If timeliness isn’t that important for the class, I’d say go for it.

But this is something you should determine before signing up. Contact your professor in that potential second class you’d be taking and ask about their late policies. Explain that you’ll be coming from across campus and hope they’ll be sympathetic. If they won’t budge, maybe you don’t take the class.

And finally, there is the trek. Every campus has one. It’s that building on a massive hill, or that’s a mile away from all the other buildings. You are thinking about taking a class there, but are put off by the trek you’d have to make every time you have the class.

Personally, I’d say that if your body is able to handle it, don’t let the trek deter you. If that dance class you really want to take is in the rec room of the gym that sits at the very top of the hill (cardiac hill, as my fellow Pitt students call it) just take the class.

You’ll get used to the hike.

Be honest: How much can you handle in a given semester?

overbooked-schedule.jpegActual footage of me on my overbooked Thursdays.
(Image by www_slon_pics from Pixabay.)

Okay, so slightly vulnerable story time: During my student orientation, I met with a general academic advisor to schedule my courses. This is normal for incoming freshmen, since you don’t have a major yet, so you can’t be assigned to a specific one in a designated department.

My general advisor must have thought I was absolutely amazing, because she signed me up for honors physics, honors calculus, honors Intro to Java, and a 9 a.m. writing class.

But honestly? I was struggling a lot at the time. I had physical health issues, I had always found transitions difficult, and I wasn’t academically prepared for the leap from high school math and science courses to honors college ones.

If I had taken these courses at different times, I might’ve done better. I didn’t need to take them all at once, but I didn’t know anything about scheduling courses then.

So, when creating your course schedule, really work to balance your course load. Don’t take several intense courses at once. Try to wait to take harder classes until you get all the fundamentals down, unless it would be really advantageous for you to take them sooner.

For example, I took linear algebra and differential equations (two higher math courses) at the same time. I only did this because I knew the semester after that would be jam-packed with higher level physics courses.

Take your entire academic course schedule into account when scheduling every semester. Make a list of what courses you still need, especially the ones in your major. Then decide what classes you can manage together, which ones should be put off until a later time, and which ones would be advantageous for you to take sooner.

Take the courses you want to take. Don’t try to match someone else’s schedule because you’re afraid to be alone in a classroom.

woman-in-graduation-gown.jpegClasses with your bestie can be great. But some paths, especially the one to graduation, can only be walked by you.
(Photo by Stanley Morales from Pexels.)

It may have been a long time since you were alone. Like, really alone. Like, “I don’t know a single soul in this room” alone.

So leaving your safe zone of taking classes with friends, roommates, siblings or romantic partners may sound terrifying.

But think about how much more terrifying it would be if you held yourself back just because you didn’t want to try something new on your own. Think about those great classes that fit so nicely into your schedule, but not your best friend’s.

An amazing class on your own is worth it. Plus, you might make new friends who are really interested in whatever the course subject is.

And, of course, there’s Rate My Professors.

professor-writing-on-board.pngNotice the good handwriting. Snatch up a seat in this class immediately.
(Photo by ThisIsEngineering from Pexels.)

Many incoming freshmen have never heard of this site. That’s probably because it’s … unconventional.

Basically, Rate My Professors is the Yelp of college education. And, like Yelp, it can be helpful or it can be harmful.

You can look up any professor and, if someone has left a review of that professor, you can see their reviews. But not all reviews are equal. You have to consider:

  • which class they had the professor in (reviewers list the numbers of the course they took with the professor they’re reviewing)
  • how many reviews there are (if there’s only one bitter review, don’t go by just that)
  • how old the reviews are

The site has a rating system, from one to five. But what I find helpful is how the professors and the course are categorized. For instance, reviewers can tell you whether the class is attendance-based, participation-based or reading-heavy, etc.

If you like the structure of the class, as described by the reviewers, then you should consider taking the course. If you really don’t like, say, public speaking, and you read about a professor who bases course grades solely on presentations, maybe you find a different professor to take the course with.

Do be cautious when reading reviews: Some students may fail and blame it on their professor. They can take to the internet to talk about their bad experience, which may not accurately represent their professor at all.

It’s just like Yelp, so just take everything with a grain of salt.

External Situations: What do you do when there are parts of your schedule that won’t budge?

dont-panic.jpegYou’re not as trapped as you may feel.
(Photo by Markus Spiske from Pexels.)

Every major has a path to graduation laid out for every student who decides to take up that major. This path includes required courses, shows when those courses are offered, and gives a general timeline for when you should be taking courses.

There are also required gen ed courses in a range of fields, from language to science to art, and so on. It looks like this big imposing list of requirements that you’re somehow supposed to manage along with your major courses.

Because of this, you will inevitably find instances where you feel you have no control over your schedule. You may end up behind schedule for graduation, because you had to drop or retake a class. You may also wind up having to take a heavy course load during your senior year because you pushed off your gen ed requirements for so long.

In any case, it may appear that you’re stuck with a class or requirement that doesn’t vibe with you.

What are your options?

Is there a substitute course/credit you could take?

chess-pieces.jpegGo all Queen’s Gambit with your strategic moves.
(Photo by Alex Green from Pexels.)

Some requirements are a little more flexible. Gen ed requirements, for instance, offer more options. And more courses than you think may count for a credit you need to graduate.

In a gen ed scenario, consider finding something else to fill that requirement. If you need a history credit, and you have no personal opinions about history, just find something that works. Sometimes there’s a course you really want to fill a requirement, one that your favorite professor is teaching, but there’s no space in the class. Consider choosing something less desirable if you really need to get the credit this semester.

If it’s a major requirement, sometimes your department may let you count something else as a credit. For example, I had a lab requirement I still needed to take in my junior year, but I had worked in a research lab already, so my department accepted that as my lab credit.

You never know until you ask.

Do you have to take it this semester?

turtles.pngSlow and steady until there’s no other options.
(Photo by Ekaterina Bolovtsova from Pexels.)

If a class doesn’t fit your schedule, and you can wait for it, then wait for it.

As long as you’re not graduating very soon, you can wait.

If it’s required and you’re behind schedule/about to graduate, I stand by my earlier “just pick something.” You’re about to run out of time. At that point, beggars can’t be choosers.

If there’s no way to get out of this unwanted class, you must build the rest of your schedule around this course.

choose-your-battles.pngSometimes you just have to fight the good fight. But fight strategically.
(Image by Brett Jordan from Pexels.)

If you really, really need to take a course that just doesn’t work with your schedule, whether it’s a huge chunk of time you wish were broken up into different days, or you get a bad professor, or it’s at the crack of dawn, then you are just going to have to work with it.

My best suggestion is to cushion the inevitable exhaustion that comes from this particularly hard-to-swallow class. Start with that class, and build the rest of your schedule around it.

If you have a long night class, give yourself time to recuperate. Don’t schedule anything the next morning.

If you have a really difficult class or two, fill the rest of your schedule with easier ones. Or consider a lighter course load altogether.

If you have a class in the morning, and are the kind of person who sometimes sees the sky getting lighter before going to sleep—well, I wish you luck.

The end goal here is to give yourself every possible chance to succeed.

A lot of that success will come from making your day-to-day life easier.

Oh wait, I almost forgot about getting into your classes. Registration is often a free-for-all battle for class spots, where you watch helplessly as they all fill up before it’s your turn.

That is, until you’re a senior. When you’re a senior, you’ve earned your place. And you have the most at stake when it comes to getting into every class you need to graduate.

Course registrations are usually done in waves. So if you’re waiting for your time to come, a hundred or more other students probably are, too. If you are an underclassman, you’re already picking from the bottom of the barrel by the time you’re able to register. That’s just how it goes.

But seriously, don’t expect to still get everything you want. And be prepared. Look through your school’s course catalog and pick your classes before your actual registration date and time. Make sure to choose some back-ups, too. That way, when your time comes, you will be prepared to fill in the blanks as classes become unavailable. You may not get everything you want, but you’re more likely to succeed than if you have to scramble to fill a course requirement on registration day.

There’s a little more to registering for classes than appears on the surface, but with these tips and some advanced planning, you can start your semester off on the right foot.


Nicolette Kier just made it to the other side of a degree in physics and writing from the University of Pittsburgh. She reaped the usual rewards of college: knowledge, a job, and debt. She thinks it was worth it.